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Wild vs. Blues Round 1 Preview

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild

The St. Louis Blues are doing it the other way around this time, but winning in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs won't be any easier as a result.

The Blues finished the regular season winning five of its final six games to climb into first place in the Central Division. It was a near 180 from last season, when it lost its last six games and fell out of first place and into a first-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The reward for winning isn't much better than the price for losing was last season because the Minnesota Wild has been the best team in the NHL since Jan. 15.

The Wild is the first wild card from the Western Conference after going 28-9-3 since goalie Devan Dubnyk made his Minnesota debut on that date. Minnesota was eight points out of a playoff spot when Dubnyk debuted; it finished with a five-point cushion.

The Wild, who had 100 points for the second time in their history, was first in points among Western Conference teams with 59 from Jan. 15 through the end of the season.

Despite high expectations and strong regular seasons, the Blues have not advanced past the first round in each of the past two seasons and haven't gone past the second round since coach Ken Hitchcock was hired early in the 2011-12 season.

St. Louis' past two series losses followed the same script: The Blues won the first two games and then lost the next four to teams (Los Angeles Kings in 2013 and Blackhawks in 2014) that eventually lost in the Western Conference Final.

The Wild is back in the playoffs for the third straight season after missing in four straight. It went one round further than the Blues last season after winning a seven-game series against the Colorado Avalanche, but the Wild also lost to the Blackhawks.

Expect this series to be tight and low scoring because the Wild and Blues are two of the NHL's best teams at preventing goals and suppressing shots.

St. Louis was fifth in goals-against per game (2.40) and second in shots against per game (27.2); Minnesota was sixth (2.42) and fourth (27.6) in those categories.

Familiarity shouldn't be an issue for the Blues or the Wild considering they played Saturday in the regular-season finale. The Blues won 4-2 and goalie Brian Elliott made 23 saves.

Elliott started the previous two games against the Wild in March, but allowed a combined seven goals on 35 shots when the Wild won 3-1 at St. Louis on March 14 and 6-3 at Xcel Energy Center on March 21.

The Wild had 14 players with at least one point in those two wins, including four points from Justin Fontaine and two goals from Thomas Vanek.

St. Louis defeated Minnesota 3-2 in a shootout on Nov. 29, when goalie Jake Allen made 36 saves.

Forwards

Wild

Captain Mikko Koivu became the first 500-point scorer in the history of the Wild and led its forwards in average ice time, centering a very productive line with right wing Chris Stewart and Nino Niederreiter, who had his first 25-goal season. Stewart, acquired prior to the NHL Trade Deadline from the Buffalo Sabres, helped create a more balanced top six.

"It's kind of a pleasure to play with those two," Koivu told StarTribune.com. "I'm very happy that they're going the way they are. I'm just trying to help them out and they're helping me a lot."

The top line of Mikael Granlund between left wing Zach Parise and right wing Jason Pominville usually draws the top defense pair of the opposition. Parise scored 30 goals for the first time in three seasons with the Wild, and first since 2011-12, his last with the New Jersey Devils.

Parise, Niederreiter and left wing Thomas Vanek have combined for more than 30 percent of the goal production. Vanek, a free agent from last summer, has 50-plus points with one team for the first time in three seasons.

Forwards Kyle Brodziak, Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke returned to health in the last month to add to the depth. Coach Mike Yeo, who had Charlie Coyle centering Vanek and right wing Justin Fontaine, was rotating five forwards for three fourth-line spots. Cooke, who missed 31 games with a sports hernia, returned April 9.

Center Jordan Schroeder is a threat with his speed, Ryan Carter can provide some power down left wing, and center Erik Haula has played a key role on the exceptional penalty kill.

Blues

It's been all about balance for the Blues this season. They have four players with at least 20 goals, led by right wing Vladimir Tarasenko and left wing Jaden Schwartz, each selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft.

Tarasenko and Schwartz had career highs in goals and points, and David Backes and Alexander Steen joined them in scoring more than 20 goals.

T.J. Oshie was on the cusp of making it five players with at least 20, but he did join the four others among the seven Blues forwards with at least 40 points, a list that included centers Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera.

The Blues signed Stastny and Lehtera as unrestricted free agents on July 1, after a third straight playoff defeat against two teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, that were deeper at the center position.

Rookie Dmitrij Jaskin has been a mainstay, and Patrik Berglund picked up his offensive numbers with increased minutes toward the end of the regular season because of lower-body injuries to Steen and Tarasenko.

Steve Ott, Marcel Goc and Ryan Reaves give the Blues a physical, puck-possessing presence on the fourth line along with Chris Porter. Olli Jokinen, a veteran acquired prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, has been used in a third-line role.

The Blues were one of the top-scoring teams in the Western Conference; they have five or more goals in a game 14 times.

Defensemen

Wild

Ryan Suter averages 29 minutes and 31 shifts a game, and is, without question, one of the premier defenders in the NHL. He's usually paired with Jonas Brodin, who established a career high in assists in his third season.

The defense ranks among the top five in the League in shots against and goals against per game.

Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella logged a lot of ice time and stepped up in big spots. Each established a career high in goals and shots on goal. Matt Dumba turned things around in his second season; he skated alongside Nate Prosser earlier this season before the latter missed nine games after sustaining a sprained knee in St. Louis on March 14. Dumba skated with Jordan Leopold until Prosser returned to the lineup on April 4.

There's no question the defense has exhibited more confidence since goaltender Devan Dubnyk arrived in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes for a third-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft on Jan. 14. The Wild have since played a solid, defense-oriented system which Yeo expected to see at the start.

Blues

The Blues have arguably the most balanced defense in the NHL.

Kevin Shattenkirk, who was having a Norris Trophy-type season before an abdominal injury sidelined him for 25 games, returned in time to play the final eight games of the regular season.

Alex Pietrangelo picked up the offensive slack, surpassing 40 points in a fourth consecutive complete season. Pietrangelo led the Blues in average time on ice and is among the League leaders at more than 25 minutes a game.

Jay Bouwmeester has been Pietrangelo's partner for the majority of his tenure in St. Louis but has been moved around this season because of the depth on defense.

Carl Gunnarsson had an up-and-down, injury-marred first season in St. Louis; veteran Barret Jackman has been a mainstay on the third pairing; and the additions of Zbynek Michalek and Robert Bortuzzo at the trade deadline fortified the group.

Goalies

Wild

When Dubnyk joined the Wild, the team was coming off six straight losses and had won two of 14 games. Dubnyk provided some hope when he made 18 saves in a 7-0 victory against the Buffalo Sabres in his Wild debut on Jan. 15. Since then, Dubnyk not only resurrected his career but is being considered as a potential Hart Trophy candidate as the NHL most valuable player.

"I think just ever since he got here he has been a man between the pipes," Koivu said. "I think you can see his confidence getting better and better. I don't think there is one thing he is good at; I think it's the whole game that he has been playing."

Dubnyk was 27-8-2 with a 1.73 goals-against average, .938 save percentage and five shutouts in 38 straight starts for the Wild. Of the losses, seven were by one goal and two were in a shootout. With Dubnyk, the Wild allowed the fewest goals and is among the top 10 in goals scored.

Darcy Kuemper is the backup.

Blues

Goaltending has always been a question mark for the Blues heading into the playoffs, and it is again.

St. Louis hasn't had a clear-cut No. 1 the past three seasons after using Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott as a playoff tandem for two seasons and Ryan Miller in the playoffs last season with Elliott as his backup.

The job was Elliott's to lose this season, and up until a week or so ago was still the case, but coach Ken Hitchcock hasn't made up his mind because of the way rookie Jake Allen played down the stretch.

Allen has one minute of playoff experience and that came during the 2011-12 season, so if the Blues choose him, it would be a risk.

Elliott has 14 games of playoff experience with the Blues but was beaten by the Kings and goalie Jonathan Quick in 2012 and 2013.

Elliott was an NHL All-Star this season, but his numbers dipped of late.

The Blues are comfortable playing either, but Hitchcock seems to have turned to the hot hand, and that belongs to Allen.

Coaches

Wild

Few around the Wild will forget that morning in January when Yeo stormed off the ice in the middle of a practice that didn't meet his expectations. The Wild was near the bottom of the Western Conference standings and coming off two wins in the previous 10 games.

That tirade, followed days later by the arrival of Dubnyk, might be considered the turning point of the season.

Yeo's four-year run hasn't been easy, but what he does best is provide a defensive system that leads to effective counterattacks if executed properly. He went back to basics and reiterated the importance of fundamentals. He spoke to his players as a group and individually, and met with the coaching staff to analyze video. He heard rumors about his job security but didn't flinch.

"I'm not going to sit around and mope and feel sorry for myself," he said at the time. "I've got a job to do, and now is when I have to do it better than ever."

He has, and the Wild appear to be a stronger, more mentally focused team than the one eliminated in six games by Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Blues

Hitchcock has taken the Blues to the playoffs in each of his four seasons in St. Louis and coached the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999.

Before 2013-14, the Blues had one season of 50 or more wins; they have had two straight under Hitchcock.

Hitchcock has a demanding style that is all about puck possession and checking, but which sometimes wears on his players.

He had a strong run of regular-season play in St. Louis, but the Blues have one series victory and are 8-13 in in the playoffs with Hitchcock.

Special Teams

Wild

Minnesota finished first in the NHL in penalty-killing percentage, including a 91 percent clip since the All-Star break. The Wild led the League in penalty killing percentage at home and ranked in the top five on the road. Minnesota scored four shorthanded goals.

"I keep saying this, but your best penalty killer is always your goalie, and [Dubnyk] is doing a great job back there," Yeo told FOX Sports North. "Obviously making the first save, controlling the rebounds. But he's also, if a team is dumping it in or we're forcing them to give it up, then he's helping to retrieve some of those pucks, and that's huge."

The power play struggled more on the road (10.6 percent) than at home (19.6 percent) and ranked in the bottom five in the League. Parise leads the Wild with 11 power-play goals, and Vanek leads with 17 power-play points.

Blues The power play was in the NHL’s top five for the majority of the season, but Hitchcock hedges on an improved penalty kill that was better than 90 percent successful over the final quarter of the season.

"You can survive on poor [power play]," Hitchcock said. "Just wave it off and move on. You'd like to get a timely goal or two, but nothing more unravels a team than if you can't kill penalties. It just unravels everything. It means you can't check."

The Blues ended the regular season with their special teams units in the top 10 in the League; the penalty kill was once ranked as low as 23rd.

Series Changer

Wild

Devan Dubnyk -- Can one of the hottest goalies in the NHL continue to defy the odds in his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut? Dubnyk has done everything possible to right the ship since his arrival from the Coyotes. He solved what was the most glaring weakness and, along the way, may have earned a contract extension. His play has not only baffled opponents but potentially saved his coach and inspired his teammates. Dubnyk used his size while exhibiting a lot of patience, something he said he learned from Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke. Dubnyk's durability was confirmed after making 39 straight starts (including one with Arizona), the most in the NHL since Evgeni Nabokov started 43 straight (Oct. 4, 2007-Jan. 12, 2008).

Blues

Vladimir Tarasenko -- The forward was the player the Blackhawks were most concerned about in their playoff series with the Blues last year.

He led them with four goals in six games, after his career season, Tarasenko is poised to be the go-to guy offensively again. His ability to do that will depend on how well he comes back from the lower-body injury that cost him six games before his return in the final regular season game Saturday.

Tarasenko’s performance in the playoffs last season came after he missed the final 15 games of the regular season with a thumb injury.

Will Win If

The Wild will win if … If the line of Niederreiter-Koivu-Stewart can continue its spirited play and take away some attention from the Parise-Granlund-Pominville line. Dubnyk must keep his "A" game intact in order to frustrate the opposition. Suter and Brodin were big keys on the transition and specialty teams, and Dumba showed tremendous improvement alongside Prosser, and that needs to continue. The penalty-killing unit has done a fantastic job, but the power play needs to rise to the occasion and take advantage of opportunities in big spots. Vanek needs to fortify the attack in the postseason; he has 20 goals, 30 points in 53 playoff games.

The Blues will win if … They can get the timely goals that have been lacking the past few seasons and timely saves from either Allen or Elliott. In their one series victory since Hitchcock's arrival, against the San Jose Sharks in 2011-12, the Blues averaged 2.8 goals in five games. In the three straight series losses since, they've averaged 1.87 goals in 16 games. The Blues offensive balance seen in the regular season will need to carry over to the postseason.

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